This page is under development and will be devoted to news articles, documents, letters, and other information pertaining to the book, Affectionately Yours, Osgood: Colonel Osgood Vose Tracy’s Letters Home during the Civil War, 1862-1865, published by Kent State University Press, June 2022.
The Syracuse Herald, Sunday Morning, March 29, 1914.
Story of Daring Exploit of the Days of 1864 Related by One of Those Who Participated in It – Getting Out of Prison by Clever Ruse,
They Tramped Through a Hostile Country 200 Miles to Safety.
This story of the escape of two Onondaga county army officers from a Confederate prison just half a century ago, written by one of them, will read with interest by all who admire daring and resourcefulness. Col. O.V. Tracy, one of the two officers to whom the story relates, died in this city in 1909. The other, Colonel Birdseye, author of the article, is now a resident of Fayetteville.
(By Col. M.B. Birdseye)
May 1st, 1864 found General Sheridan in command of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac ready for General Grant’s Overland campaign to Richmond. The corps was composed of three divisions, about 12,000 mounted men commanded respectively by Generals Willson, Merritt and Gregg. General Wilson’s division led the advance and crossed the Rapisan river at Germania before daylight May 4th and took that to Old Wilderness tavern. The enemy’s cavalry fell back to Parker’s store, about five miles, where they put up quite a fight, but were forced back about dark. The Third division bivouacked there all night.
At daylight May 5th, the Third division moved in the direction of Todd’s Tavern, which is about ten miles southeast of Germania ford. General Chapman’s brigade was in advance followed by General McIntosh’s brigade; the one I was in just beyond Todd’s Tavern. Chapman’s brigade encountered Hampton’s cavalry and was driven back to Todd’s Tavern, where McIntosh with our brigade attempted to stop the retreat of Chapman’s brigade.
My regiment, the Second New York cavalry, being at the head of McIntosh’s brigade, was ordered to charge a battery of the enemy located near Todd’s Tavern and supported by Rosser’s Laurel brigade of Hampton’s Cavalry. I, at the time, was first lieutenant and a squadron commander and led the charge on the battery. As we neared the battery our brigade bugler sounded the recall from the charge.
Carried into Enemy’s Line.
Before I could stop the head of my squadron, my horse was shot in the head and became unmanageable, carrying me through the enemy’s battery into Rosser’s staff, followed by seventeen of my men. Here my horse was again shot in the left shoulder and fell pinning me under him until the enemy pulled the horse off from me and I was a prisoner of war, with seventeen of my men, some of them badly wounded, and four of them lying dead in the enemy’s battery and just in front of it.
I was not seriously injured and was taken before General Rosser and questioned as to what command I belonged to. I did not think best to give much actual information, to tell him I belonged to Grant’s cavalry, but did not know what brigade or division. Rosser, failing to get any information out of me, began questioning one of my men, when I told the man to keep his mouth shut and give them no information. Rosser said to one of his staff: “Take the
d ——d fool away!” and I was sent to the enemy’s rear under guard.
On the way, the guard appropriated my hat and coat and a little later, passing a mounted Confederate, he grabbed my watch chain. I grabbed my watch pocket with the result that he got only the chain. While my guard was searching his comrade for the watch I managed to get the watch out of my vest pocket and roll it up into a dirty handkerchief.
Saved His Watch.
[pieces missing in this paragraph]
When they searched me, I was wiping xxxx and neck with the handkerchielf…. They concluded finally ….aring the chain only ….mighty glad to save…..open-faced gold watch which my grandfather had given to me when I joined the army.
I was placed with a hundred odd prisoners and started for Orange Court House, about twenty miles from where I was captured. That night the guard helped themselves to my vest and boots, leaving me with only pants, woolen shirt and underwear. In my vest was $47, and I was left without a cent of money.
We reached Orange Court House the day after my capture. One of my men had taken pity on my bare feet, sore and bleeding from travel over an old plank road, and insisted upon putting on his shoes, saying they were too small for him. Another enlisted man came to me with a private’s flannel blouse, coat, saying he had two and I was welcome to one. As I will tell later, this blouse coat played its part in my escape.
We spent Friday night, May 6th, at Orange Court House, and the next morning something like a hundred of us were loaded on the cars and taken to Gordonsville. There we were unloaded and guarded near the railroad station until Sunday, when we were again placed on the cars and taken to Lynchburg, Va. arriving there Monday morning early. Here commissioned officers were separated from enlisted men, and about fifty of us officers were put into a ballroom in the Warwick building just off the main street in Lynchburg.
Arrangement of the Prison.
This ballroom was on the third floor and was a room about sixty feet long and twenty-four feet wide, with two barred windows looking north and onto a covered bridge over the James River. There was a broad door from the ballroom leading into the hallway, at the north end of which was a temporary stairs down two stories into a backyard, which was stockaged with plank twelve or fourteen feet high. In this yard was a penstalk of water running into a tub, where we were allowed to go in daylight to wash and drink.
Guard duty in this prison was being performed by old men and boys with little or no military experience, and they seemed short of arms. When a guard or sentinel was relieved, he handed the man who relieved him his gun and in an undertone explained the duties of the post. At 8 o’clock in the evening two guards were placed at the door of the ballroom with orders to let no one into the hallway until 6 in the morning.
On Wednesday, May 11th, sixty or more officers were crowded into this ballroom with us. This addition made just 112 of us, and it took close figuring to permit all of us lying down on the floor at one time. Most of this newly arrived party were prisoners from the Sixth army Corps and included two generals Shaler and Seymour. In the party also was an old boyhood friend from Syracuse whom I had not seen since he went into the army – O.V. Tracy. He was then adjutant of the One Hundred and Twenty second New York volunteers and was captured with General Shaler while serving on his staff as I remember it.
I was more than glad to see Tracy and soon told him of a plan I had to make an escape. He approved of the plans, the ultimate success of which was largely due to Tracy’s judgment, nerve and cool bravery in trying times that followed.
Allowed to Visit Generals.
Generals Shaler and Seymour were placed in a small room just across the hallway from the ballroom, and the guard at our door also guarded their door. Tracy was allowed several times to cross the hallway and go into see the generals, and finally he got permission from the sergeant of the guard to take me in to see them.
To go back a little, at Gordonsville that Sunday morning I had changed my private’s blouse coat with a North Carolina Confederate guard for a gray roundabout jacket with the North Carolina State button on it. I proposed the exchange on the grounds that my coat was thin and had no lining, while his was of heavy material with a black lining. This Confederate jacket I made into a small bundle with the black lining outside and carried it with me into the Lynchburg prison.
Realizing the loose military duty the guards were performing at Lynchburg, I planned that Tracy and I, disguised in Confederate uniform, could leave General Shaler’s room at the time the two sentinels were being placed at our door and fall in at the rear of this relief squad, go with them to their guard room and probably be dismissed with them.
When Tracy entered prison he had $96, and some of his money came in handy. The sergeant of the guard was often among us changing Confederate money for greenbacks, at the rate of $20 in scrip for $1 in greenbacks-on the ground that his government could use greenbacks in running the blockade in which case Confederate script was useless. Tracy got about $500 in Confederate money by making this exchange.
The next move was to get a Confederate coat or jacket for Tracy. There was a Norhtern negro about hte prison mornings and evenigns helping to empty slop buckets, etc. who told me that he came from Boston into the army as servant for a Massachusetts officer. He was captured with his captain and had been held there in Lynchburg to do dirty work about the prison.
Secures a Gray Jacket.
This negro, with a $10 greenback of Tracy’s money, secured a gray roundabout jacket from a Confederate teamster and sneaked the coat in to Tracy, who kept it out of sight until Saturday night, May 14th. Then he and I put on our gray jackets and over them our blue coats buttoned up (I had borrowed a blue coat from a New Jersey officer as I had none). We were provided also with a couple of gray cloth hats we had borrowed of fellow prisoners. Thus equipped we secured permission from the sergeant of the guard to call on the two generals across the hallway and went into General Shaler’s room about half past 7.
At 8 o’clock, as the guard relief, composed of a sergeant and six men, halted before General Shaler’s door to post guard at the ballroom door, we put on these gray hats and took off the blue coats, dropping them on the floor, and as the guard moved on we opened the door and fell in at their rear. We were marched to their guard room on the same floor and dismissed by the sergeant, who said: “Remember, men, you belong to the third relief. You come off duty at 8 o’clock and go back at 12 o’clock. ‘Rapidan’ is the countersign tonight if you are challenged on the street.
The fool of a sergeant did not observe that he was dismissing eight men instead of six and that he had two Yankee recruits in his squad!
A couple of the guards soon started for the street and Tracy and I followed them down two flights of stairs and into the street. It was just at dusk. We made for the covered bridge over the James river. The city of Lynchburg is mostly located on a side hill south of the river, but there were quite a good many residences on the north side of the river.
Hide in a Barnyard.
After crossing the bridge we passed a few houses and turned into a driveway at the side of a house. Going through an open barn, we hid back of a manure pile until all was still on the street.
In the meantime a negro entered the barn and we heard him taking care of a horse. As he hooked up the backdoor of the barn, we had to climb into the adjoining yard when we left our hiding place about midnight.
Taking a straight road north, we hustled until daylight, when we met three negroes who told us we were twelve miles from Lynchburg. Leaving the road, we went into a woody swamp and lay there until near night. Then we came back on the road and sought the negro quarters on W.C. Rucker’s plantation where an old colored woman gave us a good meal of hoe cake and bacon and then cooked some more for our breakfast. As Confederate money was worth about a cent on the dollar, Tracy gave the old woman a $20 Confederate bill for our food.
Taking the road, we walked until sunrise, when we came to a negro just starting to plow in a corn field.
Before leaving the prison, I had borrowed from a New Jersey officer a pocket edition of Colton’s war map, and from our study of this map while in the swamp that long Sunday, we decided to make for Harpers Ferry, Md., following a route east of the Blue Ridge mountains through the counties of Amherst, Nelson, Albemarie, Green, Madison, Culpepper, Rappahannock, Fanquier and London. Our map would indicate that we were now in the vicinity of towns called Buffalo Springs, Temperance, or perhaps Livingston. So I asked the darky how far it was to Buffalo Springs.
He replied with a grin: “Donno, boss. Neverhead o’ dat place.”
After inquiry as to the other two towns and getting the same reply from the negro, I asked him where his master got his mail. He told me “At the lock on the canal.” When I asked the distance to Lynchburg, he replied: “About three hours, which meant nine or ten miles, as they figured one would walk three or four miles an hour.
Leaving the negro, we consulted our map and found the canal lock mentioned by the negro was two miles nearer Lunchburg than we were Sunday morning – and we had walked at least twenty-five miles Sunday night. This located us way east of Lynchburg, instead of being forty miles or more north of that city.
From this experience we decided to take the North Star for a guide at night, our route being a little east of north. No more such bad breaks were made in our tramp of seventeen days and eighteen nights. Keeping in the woods most of the day on Monday, at night, after getting some food from the negroes, we took the road. Walking all night, we reached Livingston early Tuesday morning. After resting a couple of hours in a piece of woods we resumed our tramp and made a town called Covet at night. Our map showed that we had put fifty miles between us and Lynchburg in three nights and one day’s walk. The country was rough, the foothills extending from the Blue ridge ten to twenty miles east.
Passed as Confederates.
We had on the whole tramp little trouble in getting hoe cake and bacon from the negroes and at times took meals at houses of the white people. We always passed as Confederate soldiers – were sometimes going to rejoin the army from being home on sick furlough and at other times were going home for a few days. I could manage the Southern dialect and negro talk fairly well, and as a result Tracy left most of the talking (including lying to me, and I found that I had to tell a dozen lies sometimes to make one good). As we were taken for Yankees but once on the whole trip, my Southern dialect was a success.
Our uniforms consisted only of the gray jackets and gray cloth hats. Our pants were of navy blue, buth that created no suspicion from the fact that many Confederate soldiers were wearing light blue pants that they got through the clckade.
After four or five days’ tramp my poor old shoes gave out. So, upon meeting a negro cobbler on the road just at night with a bundle of shoes he was carrying home to mend, I agreed to give him $50 to new sole my shoes. After dark I went to his cabin, where he worked nearly all night in soling and capping my shoes. He had to cut the tops of Tracy’s boots to cap the shoes. He used old belt leather for the new soles.
Negro Cobbler’s Kindness.
As I had no stockings, this negro cobbler gave me a long-legged pair of white cotton stockings, home knit, that belonged to his wife, who was sold an taken to Georgia before the war. These stockings being the only thing he had left of his wife’s belongings, he was keeping them for his little girl, then about 6 years old.
I told this colored man that we were a couple of Union officers escaping from Rebel prison, and he, at 2 o’clock in the morning, after working on my shoes most of the night, went with us four or five miles across lots to put us on the direct road and show us a safe crossing of the Hazel river.
But this crossing was a wet one for Tracy. It was still dark when the negro left us, but he had shown us a footbridge over the river. This bridge was made of flattened logs not over a foot wide and perhaps 100 feet long and submerged at the middle of the stream. We waited for daylight before attempting to cross.
I with a pole to lean against, went over first safely. Tracy thought he could walk the logs without a pole and started, but the middle of the stream he lost his balance and went into five or six feet of swift running water, which carried him downstream eight or ten rods onto a bar, where I fished him out, uninjured but soaked.
I do not recall seeing a road bridge over any stream we crossed on our whole trip. Teams and wagons forded the streams and foot travelers generally crossed on flat log bridges seldom over a foot wide. At some places, over deep water, there would be a handrail attached to the log.
A Close Call.
While the distance from Lynchburg to Harpers Ferry is only about 200 miles in a straight line, we were quite busy for seventeen days and eighteen nights in making this tramp. We had a number of close calls from detection. The most serious one was near Meachum station, on the railroad running from Charlottesville, to Staunton.
We were taking breakfast at the home of a plantation overseer when a Confederate soldier came to the house after a baking of bread. In answer to his many questions, I told him that we were of Breckenridgee’s command, coming by rail from the Shenandoah valley to join Lee’s army in fighting Grant. I explained that we had left the train to hunt something to eat while the engine was taking water at Piedmont station, which was a couple of miles east, and that the train had pulled out and left us. And now we had to go a couple of miles west, to Meachum Station to catch the regular train.
From the first I noticed something familiar about this Confederate soldier. He wore on his hat a badge, three laurel leaves, which was the badge of Rosser’s Laurel brigade, the command that captured me. As soon as he let up a little in questioning me, I began questioning him and he said he had his horse shot in the fight, with the Yankees at Todd’s Tavern May 5th and that he was then detailed in charge of a hundred Yankee prisoners whom he took to Orange Court House. From there he was sent into this section with 100 played out horses which he was now grazing on this plantation. It did not take me long to recognize him as the sergeant of the guard that took me from Todds Tavern to Orange court house. On that trip I had talked with him about the cause of the war and about the hanging of John Brown at Harpers Ferry.
Decline a Ride.
He called us to the door and, pointing out a bunch of horses grazing the distance, said if we would walk down with him to the horses he would have us a ride to Meachum’s Station. This I declined to do as we had only two or three miles to walk on the railroad track adn plenty of time before a train was due.
As we were parting from this solderier, he said to me: “Where have I seen you?” and I replied: “Sure I don’t know.” This was a close shave, and when Tracy and I got out of sight up the railroad track we climbed up on a ridge at the side of the railroad and lay in the bushes until night. Then we proceeded to Meachums station and left the railroad, going north to Millington.
Another close call was near Hillsboro, in London country, which is fourteen miles south of Harpers Ferry. The incident occurred the day before we reached our lines. We had stopped at a farmhouse for breakfast, and were for the first time suspected or taken for Yankees. When I made the inquiry “Are there any of our soldiers about here?” The woman said “There’s right smart of them at Harpers Ferry, and a whole regiment of them comes by here every other day on a patrol to Snickers Gap. And this is the day for them to come.”
Upon my inquiry as to what command they belong to, the woman replied: “Fifteenth New York Cavalry.”
When I said, “Those are Yankees,” she replied: “My God, ain’t you-all Yankees? You talk just like one.”
Commenced at Last.
“No,” I said, “I’m a North Carolinian, but I can talk like Yankees as I have been inside their lines a good deal on scouting duty,” And I at once assumed the Southern dialect, slang phrases, etc., with the result that the woman soon remarked: “Of course you is a Southern man.”
About this time a young man appeared who asked us a good many questions. But I was on my guard and did not arouse his suspicion. He told of being discharged from the army on account of a wound and that his older brother was upstairs. He said that his brother was a member of Mosby’s battalion.
Soon the older brother made his appearance and plied us with questions. When I told him that we were trying to make our way into the Shenandoah valley to scout inside the Yanees’ lines, he said we were taking lots of changes so near the Yankee lines, for the “Yanks” were about almost every day. He finally said that the best way for us to get into the Shenandoah valley was to go to a man named John Mosbray, who lived two miles north of Hillsboro on the Harpers Ferry road. He said that Mosbray knew the valley well and would tell us what course to take. He cautioned us to lie low during the day, or the Yanks would get us.
Waiting for Union Cavalry.
We left the house saying we would retrace our steps and go back south and try Snickers Gap to reach the valley. Wehn out of sight we took the woods and secreted ourselves near the road. We watched all that May day for the Fifteenth New York cavalry to make its patrol, but no Union soldiers appeared. I knew this section of the country well and that we were only fifteen or sixteen miles from Harpers Ferry. So after dark the last day of May we skirted Hillsboro and started north.
A couple of miles north of Hillsboro we came to a house all lighted up. We heard the sound of a a fiddle, and just as we were passing the house someone said, Whar you
[portion missing ]
He said that he would [missing] us over into the valley, but could not that night as his mother was giving him a birthday party. He invited us into the house but we declined. Finally we agreed to secrete ourselves in a piece of woods that he directed us to on Loudon Heights. He told us that Gen. Max Webber was in command at Harpers Ferry and that the Yankees had their pickets posted about two miles this side of Harpers Ferry, then about twelve miles distant, and without further adventure we reached the Union picket line about 3 A.M. June 1st.
The pickets were German of the Fourteenth Heavy artillery, and we could not make them understand us. They took us back to their reserve post, evidently taking us for rebel deserters. About 9 o’clock when the pickets were relieved, they took us down to Harpers Ferry and were turning us over to the provost guard as rebel deserters when I succeeded in making one of the soldiers understand that we were Union officers in Confederate uniform. We were then taken to General Webber’s headquarters where we told our story to the General. He gave us a good hearty breakfast and provided us with transportation to Washington.
After taking a bath and cleaning up a little, we took a train for Washington, arriving there about dark. We had bought a couple of linen dusters of a sutler at Harpers Ferry which we put on over our dirty gray uniforms. This was to avoid arousing the curiosity of people we met rather than for our comfort. We had decided to go to the Secretary of War in our Confederate disguise that we might be granted leave of absence and perhaps an order on our paymasters, as Tracy’s money was about gone.
Early the next morning we were at the War department, but it was noon before we could prevail upon the red tape officials to let us see Secretary Stanton in person. The Secretary was much interested in our story of escape and gave us each a 30 day leave of absence and an order on our respective paymasters to pay us in full to date. We got our money and then some fatigue uniforms, hunted a bathroom and barber shop and were soon in the good old United States uniform, a couple of happy fellows.
Arrive in Syracuse June 3rd.
Leaving the night of June 2d, the 3rd found us in Syracuse. We were met by my father, mother and brother Daniel, and Tracy’s mother. We had telegraphed our parents of our escape while at Harpers Ferry and later wired from Washington when we would be in Syracuse. The Harpers Ferry telegram was welcome news to my people, my father having received a letter from the colonel of my regiment about May 20th, saying that I was killed in battle May 5th. Letters written to father and my best girl that Sunday (May 8th) and sent through flag of truce by way of Old Point Comfort, did not reach their destination until some time after I had reached home.
When I rejoined my regiment at City Point, Va., at the expiration of my leave, I found that I was dropped from the rolls as killed in action. An officer had been commissioned and mustered in to succeed me, but the good old German colonel, Otto Harhans, promoted me to a captaincy as two lieutenants in Company O were one too many.
An Interesting Sequel.
Nearly twenty years after the war there was an interesting sequel to this prison escape. Tracy and I one morning during our flight breakfasted at a farmhouse in Rappahannock county with an old gentleman and a young lady. Upon leaving this house, the young lady followed us out onto the porch and handed me a lunch of cookies and pickles and a letter to mail for her at a nearby post office. In handing me the letter, she remarked: “We haven’t a postage stamp in the house, nor any money less than a $20 bill. Will you please buy a postage stamp for my letter when you mail it?”
This I promised to do, but did not as I did not care to hunt a post office. This letter was addressed to “Mr. Thomas Vigis, Cobbs Legion, C.S.A. I carried the letter home unsealed, and left it at my mother’s.
At my mother’s death in 1890 some old army correspondence and papers were sent to my home and stored away in a chest in our attic, until March 1905, when I overhauled the contents of the chest. I found this old, faded sealed envelope, and at once recalled the letter I had agreed to mail. Breaking the seal I found a sensible love letter to “Dear Tom,” dated Oak Shade, Va., May 23d, 1864, Monday evening, and signed “Annie.”
Other Name Discovered.
An inquiry at my local post office failed to find a post office in Virginia named Oak Shade. Returning to my home, I took a magnifying glass and deciphered the cross writing in the final page of the letter, in which “Annie” asked “Tom” to answer this letter in care of “Uncle Tom” at Sperryville and also mentioning the names of “Dr. Ward” and a “Mr. Patrick.”
Realizing that Sperryville was the county seat of Rappahannock county, I at once wrote a letter to the postmaster at Sperryville, telling him how this letter came into my hands in 1864 and asking him if he could locate “Annie,” “Uncle Tom,” “Dr. Ward,” “Mr. Patrick,” or “Thomas Vigis.” In a few days a reply came from the postmistress at Sperryville saying that she knew “the whole outfit.” “Annie” was Annie Fisher, who married Thomas Vigis soon after the war, and they now lived at Hawlin, Va., eight miles from Sperryville, where Vigis kept a general store and was postmaster. “Uncle Tom” was Thomas Fisher, an old gentleman then living in Sperryville, and “Annie’s uncle. “Dr. Ward” had died, and Mr. Patrick had moved out of the country years ago.
I then wrote Mr. Vigis, enclosing Annie’s love letter, which I had had forty-one years, lacking two months, and told him that I was glad to learn that the delayed love letter had not proved a “missing link in the chain of true love.”
Vigis and Annie replied in my letter at once, thanking me for my promptness in delivering the wartime letter and saying they would have the letter framed and hung on the wall as an omen of good luck. They closed their letter with a most cordial invitation to visit them.
In October 1905 Colonel and Mrs. Tracy invited myself and wife to join them in a trip to Lynchburg, from which place we took a three seated rig and a driver and drove for seven days over the route Tracy and I had tramped in making our escape, using the war map heretofore mentioned as our guide. On this trip we spent a couple days with the Vigis family, who gave us most hospitable entertainment, and I have had the pleasure of visiting them three times since.
Last July I invited Mr. Vigis to the Gettysburg reunion, and he came there with a couple of his Confederate friends and neighbors. They were entertained a day and a night at a farmhouse near Gettysburg by a bunch of us old Union soldiers. After the reunion, Harter, one of my old Second New York cavalry comrades, and I made a week’s trip into Virginia, visiting old war scenes and spending a couple of days at the Vigis home.